Havana the second time around

By Oscar Wailoo

I’ve just returned from my second trip to Cuba within a year and again stayed in Havana rather than at one of the all-inclusive holiday resorts.

I stayed in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the city centre and oldest part, founded by the Spaniards in 1519.

Arriving at high noon, the old city is easily recognizable and measuring a mere four square kilometers with square blocks that can be traversed in half an hour; it’s hard to get lost even if your knowledge of Spanish is “not a word.”

Although the occasional car and larger service vehicle will worm their way through the narrow streets, Habana Vieja is built for walking or a ride in the pervasive rickshaw. But the main street, Obispo, the narrowest and cobblestoned, is for pure walking.

Bars, restaurants, music, and tourists everywhere, Obispo hums all day with the clip, clop of sandaled feet on cobblestones, music rising from every wide open bar / restaurant, the song of the pedlar, the click of the clave, the sheesh ka sheesh of the shak shak.

Habana Vieja is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monuments, churches, block to block European style buildings, aged, grimy, brilliant, are a living museum.

There is hardly a time in Cuba when a visitor can’t find a reason to be lucky to be there. Revolutionary Cuba, Caribbean in every way, always has something cultural or political to throw at you. My luck was to be there during the VII Summit of the Americas that just concluded in Panama.

Cubans were glued to their TVs to witness their country’s first appearance at such a summit since 1962; the year it was expelled from the Organization of American States at the behest of the United States – the angry imperial nation affronted by a revolutionary Cuba that broke from its orbit.

Cubans also waited to watch the historic hand shake between their President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama, months after Obama and Castro agreed to restore official relations.

The summit, which was covered in every detail, was preceded by a youth forum that saw over 400 youth from around Latin America and the Caribbean converge on Panama City to have their say in matters political, cultural and social.

There were pitched battles in the streets as members of the official Cuban delegation took exception to a group of Cuban youth delegates closely affiliated to a rightwing Venezuelan, anti-Chavez party, and to Felix Rodriguez, the CIA operator who killed Che Guavara in Bolivia.

One thing you should know about Cubans: do not mess with Che Guavara or Jose Marti, the country’s national heroes. And this goes for the older generation, steeped in revolutionary history, as well as for young Cubans, far removed from the revolution and salivating for the bling of American capitalism. But do not mess with Che!

As a Canadian, it was hard to feel as visceral a response as the Cubans did to what was an historical moment in their country’s history as the VII Summit unfolded. So this Canadian did the next best thing – show some humility and try to get a sense of the occasion.

Unfortunately, our Prime Minister Stephen Harper lacks both humility and common decency, and showed it when he shook hands with Castro with marked reluctance and out of public sight.

He then found it necessary to lecture summit leaders on the need for greater democracy in their countries. He did this while in the company of people like Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, people who fought against the worst dictatorships the Americans could sponsor.

Harper, who gets to run a majority government with 39% of the vote, was lecturing leaders, most of whom boast democratic support of massive majorities of over 50% (some in the 60s) in their countries. This arrogant, ugly Canadian has squandered whatever respect our country once commanded in most countries except the U.S. and Apartheid Israel.

For the moment, Cuba’s eyes are diverted by the one million Canadians who visit the country every year, providing a significant boost to the economy. But Canada’s arrogant foreign policy will soon be exposed when our tourism contribution become less significant as Cuba gears up for a massive influx of tourists.

Then we’ll have some explaining to do.

Next week more on my Havana visit.

Oscar Wailoo
Oscar Wailoo